Pitayas: The fleeting fruit that causes a frenzy in Mexico

CNN  — 

“It looks like brains!” I said, peeling back the skin of my very first pitaya – a variety of dragonfruit grown in Mexico and Central America – in the small Jalisco town of Techaluta.

We were there to pick up the López family’s pitaya harvest and take it on the hour-and-a-half drive back to Guadalajara, where these seasonal fruits are sold at the Las Nueve Esquinas tianguis (market). “That’s what all the children say when they first see pitayas,” came the eventual response.

Pitayas have to be picked off of cacti.

Available in a rainbow of colors, from blush pink and blood orange, to deep red or washed-out white, pitayas are like the colorful coming-together of a kiwi and a watermelon (texture-wise at least), while their tiny black seeds provide a crunchy counterbalance to the fruit’s juicy sweetness.

And, unlike Froot Loops cereal, each color (which all come from different cacti) does have its own distinct taste, Abraham Cruz López confirms.

According to Cruz López, whose family has been harvesting, cultivating and selling pitayas in Jalisco for generations – “at first the pitayas were cut from [wild cacti on] the cerros,” he told me – pitayas are almost frustratingly fleeting fruits, in season from roughly April to June each year and prone to lasting just two days if not refrigerated. (Once they’re safely ensconced in a fridge, they do last much longer.)

And it’s the fleeting nature of this food that makes harvesting it particularly problematic, not least as it must be done by the light of a headlamp in the early hours of the morning, so as to avoid the blinding sunshine and get the fruit to the market on time.

Yet picking the pitayas isn’t even the hardest part of the harvest.

No, that’s left for the hardy women who deal with the spiky exteriors of the freshly-picked fruits. The day I visited Techaluta, multiple señoras were haphazardly arranged around pitaya-packed milk crates, grasping them one by one with pincers and shaving off most of the spines with whip-fast knife strokes, before picking up the shorn pitaya with their bare hands to finish the job. (Using gloves would bruise the fruit, apparently.)

All this is done in the blink of an eye – time is of the essence, after all – and then the newly naked pitaya is loaded into the vast, alfalfa-lined wicker baskets from which they’ll be sold at the market.

Guadalajara’s Las Nueve Esquinas market is easily the most iconic place to pick up a pitaya or two for just five pesos apiece, and it is also the very same spot where Cruz López’s great-grandmother, Elisa Becerra, first sold or swapped her pitayas for seafood, cheese and clothes.

Nowadays, roughly April through June, Las Nueve Esquinas welcomes a decidedly larger flurry of pitaya buying and selling activity from several of the state’s municipalities, such as Tolimán, Amacueca, Cofradía and Tepec, although ancient truqueo (bartering) techniques have since died out.

Jalisco state is particularly proud of its pitaya hauls.

While you can find pitayas in “various parts of the Republic,” concedes Cruz López, they are “very popular” in Jalisco and, if local pride has any truth to it, Jalisco is home to the sweetest varieties.

The López family’s unsold pitayas (they produce some 5,000 at the height of the season) don’t go to waste either, being used to feed livestock or to make bread and jam.

Other families even dabble in making pitaya shampoo, according to Cruz López. And local bars, like Guadalajara’s recently opened De La O, have started to take advantage of pitaya season too, working them into one-off cocktails and drinks.

Drinking fads and shampoo-creating aside, the seasonal pitaya fever-pitch doesn’t look set to die down in the heart of Guadalajara anytime soon.

Lauren is a travel, food and drink writer, specializing in Mexico and Latin America. Follow her inane inner monologue on Twitter at @laurencocking or read her blog Northern Lauren.